Reading Life, Animated by Ron Suskind opens the eyes to the prevalence of mediated forms in everyday American life. In his book, Suskind relates the journey of his family of four as they aid and cope with his youngest son’s autism diagnosis. When Owen, then a healthy three-year-old, began to regress, the family realized that something was terribly wrong. “No kid loses what they’ve already attained. You don’t grow backwards,” (6) they realized with alarm. But thankfully there was a rope hanging from the obscure portal of autism, which the despairing Suskinds were able to grab ahold of. This rope was the fact that Owen was still able to communicate, albeit, by using Disney films as reference points for his feelings, thoughts, and desires.
While the book centers on the topic of autism, the Suskinds’ story could easily be an allegory of America’s use of print and media to build a repertoire of common experiences among its citizens. This is done in an effort to foster effective communication. Without this tool, communication would become less sophisticated, or perhaps even nonexistent, as people would lose avenues to share their experiences with each other. There would be a distinct lack of understanding, which in turn, would lead to broken relationships, misunderstandings, and warring factions. The end result would be a catastrophe, the downfall of society as it is known today. Thankfully, people have a wide array of ropes, including television, film, radio, podcasts, and print to pull themselves away from this chaotic darkness.
However, the vision is not easily dismissed. What would life be like if there were no mediated forms? The first answer to this question lies in perhaps the most quintessential sphere of life: The Self. The Self would suffer because humans would no longer be able to record their thoughts, ranging from important life lessons and events to what should be on the grocery list. There would be no way to record when specific people entered the world and when they left it. The human concept of time itself would be altered. Only nature would be reliable. In order to combat this, memory would have to overcompensate as it does in oral societies.
Relationships would be the second thing to suffer. Empathy might shrivel up and die from a lack of use. Arguments would be made to try to persuade people to one side, but without a way to analyze them, emotions would dominate the discussion and shouting matches would be likely to ensue. Likely is the word of necessity because oral cultures, specifically Native American cultures, have succeeded in mastering understanding without the use of print.
However, American (and Western) culture in general has oriented itself around the use of print. According to media theorist Marshall McLuhan, print fosters individuality. Because of their reliance on print, Westerners have become more individualistic.
With this in mind, the fall of mediated forms might not spell out the total destruction of American/Western society. It could survive if it evolved with its circumstances. Americans would be forced to retreat into the sphere of oral tradition due to a lack of other options.
It would be difficult to imagine what the Western world as it is known today would look like with that alteration. Memory would, of course, become one of the cornerstones of society. Instead of multitasking, people would have to pay attention to what they needed to know. It would be easier to accomplish this, because their minds would no longer be being constantly bombarded by other media outlets.
Relationships would be stronger, as people would take the time to listen to what each other has to say. This would allow for easier coordination when it comes to working. Society itself would be in shambles because of the difficulty in communicating in ways that are not face to face, so an increased coordination with those nearby would be a necessity.
Perhaps, in the end, there would be a decrease in familiarity with those who do not live nearby, but an increase in familiarity with those who do. It is possible that losing mediated forms would even bolster America’s national identity, by severing ties to the calamities and joys of other countries. For instance, when Paris was attacked by terrorists in 2015, America, along with many other countries, mourned. American society is heavily intertwined in the events of other places outside of its border. This extends beyond the scope of participating in alliances but wanders into the territory of sympathy, as can be seen through what individual citizens and businesses did to show their grief over this sorrow. Facebook released a special filter that people could use in honor of Paris. American news stations fixated on what was taking place in the city in constant streams. Yes, the outpouring of grief extended far beyond the obligations of the American government. With the absence of the ability to hear about events like this, America will be forced to attend solely to its own issues.
In conclusion, America uses print and other mediated forms as a way for its citizens to connect with and understand each other. Print also functions as the lifeblood of Western and American societies. Without these forms of communication, American and Western society would crumble. People would initially be unprepared for survival in the new kind of society that this demise of mediated forms would usher in due to their being conditioned by print. However, necessity would force the return to oral communication. Memory would become a stronger force in society, which would be a startling departure from the multitasking world of today. People would have to pay attention to what was going on around them, and relationships would also become stronger through face to face interaction. If America successfully sheds the skin of individualism, then peace could exist within these relationships. Finally, by being largely confined to its own borders, America would gain even more of a national identity.
Suskind, Ron. Life, Animated. Los Angeles, New York: Kingswell, 2014.